Pubdate: Mon, 01 Jan 2001
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 2001 News World Communications, Inc.
Contact:  202-832-8285
Author: Thomas D. Elias


LOS ANGELES - Marijuana gardens planted illegally by squatters in the 
national forests of California are growing steadily larger, producing crops 
that are becoming ever more lucrative and potent, law-enforcement agencies 
reported in December as they wrapped up a record season of seizures in 
America's leading pot-growing state.

"There is a lot more growing out there," said Eric Nishimoto, spokesman for 
the Ventura County Sheriff's Department, which cut down more than 15,000 
plants with a combined street value of about $22 million in the county's 
portion of the Los Padres National Forest during one month last fall.

"We're seeing more sophistication in the methods used, which can yield a 
much larger crop. We're not talking about the old days when some potheads 
grew some plants for their own use."

Overall, California authorities seized more than 420,000 marijuana plants, 
or pot, last year —almost double the 241,000 they grabbed in 1999. Agents 
of the joint local-state-federal California Campaign Against Marijuana 
Planting (CAMP) scored their biggest single-raid haul ever in September, 
confiscating 58,000 plants from a patch in the Sequoia National Forest, 
northeast of Bakersfield.

They staged their biggest-ever San Francisco Bay area bust that same month, 
taking $49 million worth of plants from a patch planted beneath coastal 
redwoods in a county park near Woodside, on the edge of the Silicon Valley. 
Most marijuana plants produce about a pound of smokeable weed apiece, with 
the street value ranging from $600 to $5,000 per pound, depending on the 
potency of their tetrahydrocannabinol, the active ingredient in marijuana.

That big money, said Sonya Barna, CAMP's director of operations, is the 
reason "we're not dealing with traditional hippie farmers any more. A lot 
of them have been pushed out by pseudo-criminal organizations from Mexico 
who import labor and armed guards. It's more cost-effective to grow it here 
than to smuggle it in. If they plant 20 big gardens, they can easily afford 
to lose most of them [to police] and still make millions."

Although one armed grower was killed this year by a CAMP agent —the first 
fatality in the campaign's 15-year history — most raids net no suspected 
growers. Many patches now are equipped with watchtowers and dummies made to 
look like armed farmers. Police say these are principally intended to scare 
off poachers, but also can provide growers with warnings when police 
approach. Some patches feature guards carrying AK-47s, intended to fight 
off thieves, not for resisting police.

Authorities also have found irrigation pipes running to the pot patches 
from creeks and springs as far as five miles away. Growers or their workers 
carry food, ammunition and other supplies into the park and later pack 
mature pot out on their backs.

Forest Service officials worry that the pot patches are affecting wildlife 
in the national forests, as growers kill animals for food, cut away natural 
vegetation, litter and leave human waste.

"They're using the forest as a toilet," said Kathy Good, a Forest Service 
spokeswoman. "Birds and animals are dying because of the pesticides they 
use. They're also a big fire hazard because they use stoves and campfires 

Nevertheless, some law-enforcement officials believe their campaign is 
succeeding. "It's very, very expensive to set these gardens up, and they 
take a big hit financially when we strike," said Ms. Barna. "And the more 
we take from them, the less they can put out on the street. I don't think 
we'll ever eliminate this entirely, but we are at least holding it down."

Improved police techniques are one reason for the increased amounts of 
confiscated pot from raids. They have become more efficient at spotting 
gardens from cruising helicopters, then either landing on level ground or 
dropping officers into remote ravines by cables that can extend down as far 
as 150 feet.

But the more law enforcement does, it seems, the more inventive the growers 
become. Where California pot growing was once largely confined to the 
so-called "Emerald Triangle" of three North Coast counties, now growers 
operate all over the state.

"You can grow almost anything in the San Joaquin Valley with a little 
water, and they're taking advantage of that," Ms. Barna said.

Some law-enforcement officials say the conflicted attitude of the 
California public makes enforcement difficult. The 1996 Proposition 215, 
aimed at legalizing medical marijuana, passed 60 percent to 40 percent. 
Even state Attorney General Bill Lockyer, a Democrat, admits to some 

"I don't use drugs, and I don't condone drug use," he said. "I will use our 
authority to stamp out illegal drugs. But this is totally separate from my 
support of medical uses of marijuana."
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